Yoruba ArtMay 14 2021
The Yoruba are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa, numbering more than 40 million people. The majority of Yoruba live in southwestern Nigeria, where from the 12th to the 18th centuries, the Yoruba kingdoms of Ife and Oyo ranked among the most powerful states in West Africa. A succession of civil wars and conflicts with neighboring ethnic groups seriously weakened the Yoruba during the 19th century, leaving them vulnerable to invasion and colonization by European nations. Great Britain was the primary colonizer of Yoruba lands and people, starting with the seizure of Lagos in 1861 and culminating with the establishment of the British Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914.
The imposition of British rule affected every aspect of Yoruba society and culture. In the arts, the diminished power and wealth of Yoruba kings and chiefs meant less patronage for artists who produced household furnishings, clothing and ceremonial objects for the Yoruba ruling classes. The conversion of increasing numbers of Yoruba to Christianity and Islam reduced demand for sculptures, paintings and other art forms associated with traditional Yoruba religion. Further, the introduction of imported manufactured goods undermined many of the traditional arts used in everyday Yoruba domestic life, including textiles, ceramics, basketry and metalwork. Yet, despite all the challenges, traditional Yoruba art survived the impact of British colonization, and contributed to a growing sense of Yoruba ethnic pride during that period.
After Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, the Yoruba found themselves competing for power and resources with other Nigerian ethnic groups, especially the Hausa in the north and the Igbo in the east. These ethnic rivalries created a new context in which art became an important means of preserving and promoting Yoruba identity and culture. The first distinctly Yoruba art movement emerged in the city of Osogbo in the early 1960s, and quickly attracted national and international attention. Additional Yoruba art movements arose in the cities of Ibadan and Lagos in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the collective success of which helped to ensure that Yoruba culture remains vibrant and relevant within Nigeria and beyond to this day.
Traditional Yoruba Art
Traditional Yoruba art encompasses a wide range of genres, from mural painting and wood sculpture to textiles, ceramics, basketry and metalwork. It includes objects used in both secular and religious contexts. The production of traditional Yoruba art was historically divided by gender, with men practicing the arts of weaving, woodcarving and metalsmithing, while women practiced the arts of mural painting, ceramics and basketry. Art making was often a hereditary occupation, with family members working together and passing down knowledge and skills from generation to generation. Artists were typically well respected in their communities, and although they usually did not sign their works, their names were often known and preserved in local memory for many years.
The social and cultural disruptions caused by civil wars, external conflicts and British colonization during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries had a detrimental impact on many traditional Yoruba art forms. In particular, the integration of Nigeria into Britain’s global colonial economy created new jobs that lured many people away from traditional art occupations, and introduced new competition into the market for secular art products such as textiles, ceramics, baskets and metal-wares. At the same time, the widespread conversion of many Yoruba to Christianity and Islam led to a decline in demand for traditional religious art, while the reduced power and wealth of the Yoruba kings and chiefs led to a decline in demand for traditional ceremonial art. Nonetheless, traditional Yoruba art survived during the 20th century, and became an important vehicle for preserving and promoting Yoruba identity and culture, first in the context of British colonial rule and later in the context of competition with other Nigerian ethnic groups.